March 14, 2011
I am writing this on the New York subway hurtling downtown from the Upper East Side towards Wall Street.
The old Jewish lady, all coiffed and nailed, is putting on her lipstick intently, oblivious to the rest of the crowded train.
Two students chat away about the film, The Jersey Shore, while the rest of the carriage go about their mid-morning business.
Two Latin American tourists, all gold and diamonds, in telltale Brazilian bourgeois mink coats, stand for what seems like an eternity, scanning the subway map – easy pickings for a run-of the mill mugger.
Yet they are totally safe. I remember when I first came to this city in the late 1980s, the subway was regarded by many as no-go zone.
As Irish students slumming it, the subway was the only way of getting around and there was, initially at least, a sense of adventure as you descended down into the bowels of Manhattan and breathed in that distinct subway stench, jumped the turnstiles and allowed the warm air which was pushed through the tunnels like some gigantic subterranean piston to wash over you.
For many of us then in our late teens, the subway was New York and, most importantly, it was far away from home. We were free.
However, our American employers and relations didn’t see it that way. They lectured us on the dangers of the trains and told us never to go near the subway.
This was the New York of former mayor Ed Koch, a city of violence, muggings and casual crime where the fear of the unknown appeared to terrify most people.
The place was full of rumours, and the subway became the ghoulish scene of CSI style crimes perpetrated on the innocent.
Respectable people didn’t get the subway.
Fast-forward to 2011 and all that has changed. The train is now full of those who, in the late 1980s,would have been classic victims; these same passengers have the confident swagger of the blithely unconcerned.
New York changed because the people who run the place decided to change it.
They decided they had enough. By committing huge resources, lots of thought and common sense, the New York subway became safe.
If the New York subway can change, Ireland can change.
Had you suggested two decades ago that old ladies would confidently ride the subway you would have been laughed at – but it happened.
It happened because people thought differently and decided to change. It didn’t happen by following the crowd.
The subway is an anomaly in this city, with its tooth-and-claw capitalist signature. In a country that heralds free enterprise, it is interesting that the mode of transport of choice, whisking bond traders down to Wall Street, is a heavily-subsidised public company.
The subway was cleaned up, not by some swashbuckling free-marketer, but by diligent public officials. It proves that ideology is not the only catalyst to change.
Change comes because people want it.
As I watched these bond-traders on Wall Street, in identikit Brooks Bros suits and penny loafers, queuing for lunchtime sushi, high-fiving the wonders of the private sector, I am sure they didn’t consider that the subway that got them to work is a state company.
Their minds are focused on Portugal, the euro and the next move by Ireland.
On Wall Street, the talk of Ireland is all about when we default.
No one here believes a word that comes out of the European Commission, the ECB or the organs of the Irish state.
The traders I chatted to see the numbers, they see the huge debts that are there to be paid by the people, and all agree that the way to go is to default on the bank debt and start again, protecting the sovereign in the process.
Now only the very silly would take their view on most things in life seriously; they are, in the main, one-dimensional, not particularly talented or educated lads, but they do constitute the market and the market has spoken.
They mention Ireland in the same breath as Argentina before Argentina defaulted in chaos in 2001.
The traders who were on the street at the time say that the signals are precisely the same.
Argentina went through 25 months of recession, unemployment rose and then eventually ordinary people took their savings out of their banks. Once that happened, the game was up. These Wall Street guys see Ireland as repeating precisely the same mistakes.
The interesting thing is all of them believe that, if Ireland stops paying the ‘‘odious’’ bank debts, the economy will recover extremely quickly. They also indicated that they would consider buying Irish government paper if we got rid of our bank debt. But with the bank debt, there is no way.
At the moment, Taoiseach Enda Kenny is trying to change the interest rate we face but while, a reduction of interest will help, it will only stop Ireland defaulting if we do not add any more to that debt.
Unfortunately, it now seems that the Irish banks are going to need an awful lot more cash.
Let’s imagine for a minute that the government is crazy enough to commit another â‚¬50 billion (which is not an unlikely figure) to the banks, which would increase our government debt to â‚¬195 billion.
Then add the deficits that we will need to fund for the next five years. That’s about another â‚¬45 billion.
This gives leaves our national debt at â‚¬240 billion.
Even if we manage to finance all of that at 4 per cent (which is the lowest possible figure under current arrangements), it would cost nearly â‚¬10 billion a year in interest payments alone.
That is equal to 80 per cent of the government’s income tax take in 2010. It is unsustainable. There is no way around it.
Paying interest on debt is a draw on an economy – it means money that could be invested in an economy is leaving the country. If we are paying â‚¬10 billion in interest every year and our GDP is in the region of â‚¬150 billion, we need to expand the economy by more than â‚¬10 billion each year, just to stand still.
It works like this: GDP on January 1 is â‚¬150 billion. During the year, extra economic activity in the economy adds â‚¬10 billion value to the economy, giving a GDP at end of year of â‚¬160 billion. But the economy has to pay â‚¬10 billion in interest. So we have to take that â‚¬10 billion from the â‚¬160 billion to get end-of year GDP.
That leaves the GDP at the same level as it was at the start of the year: â‚¬150 billion.
The economy will have to run to stand still. Something has to give.
The New York subway story tells us that, when the powers-that-be eventually decide to ‘get real’ with something, it can be fixed. But this needs complete political support and the change in policy needs to be dramatic.
A structured default now is the game-changer we need. The view from Wall Street this afternoon is that this is the answer.
Don’t bet against it.